ALTHOUGH Bach spent a considerable part of his life at princely courts writing secular music, his heart was drawn irresistibly toward the Lutheran sanctuary, to which he devoted the last 27 years of his life. Music held an essentially spiritual meaning for him; it was a medium for reaching the depths of the soul. The Latin schools instilled this basic attitude toward music, for they still adhered to the Lutheran conceptions of the preceding centuries. During Bach’s school years music was treated as one of the most important faculties within education.
Reformation of Church Music
Luther had attributed a semimagical quality to music, the power to convey ideas, to steer the will, to fortify faith. This evaluation of music can be traced back to Pythagoras and especially to Plato, who considered musical training “a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony [melody, in the ancient sense] find their way into the inward places of the soul.”1 Luther says in his poem “Fraw Musica,”
For the divine Word and Truth
She [Musica] makes the heart tranquil and receptive
Thus Eliseus has confessed
That by harping he found the Holy Spirit.2
The art of music was not the work of man, but a “most wonderful and glorious gift of God, which has the power to drive out Satan and to resist temptations and evil thoughts.”3 Medieval man valued music for its intellectual discipline; Luther was drawn to music more for its ability to move men to spiritual disciplines.
“I give, after theology, music the nearest locum and highest honor’ Luther wrote of his school curriculum. The word locus in medieval school language is equivalent to a division in the plan of learning, but Luther used the term in its ancient sense of place, or classroom.4 The far-reaching influence of this conception upon the subsequent development and the idealistic character of German music can hardly be underestimated. Without this vision of music as a spiritual power the world would never have known the genius of Bach or Beethoven.
This tradition is much older than the teachings of Luther. Even since Charlemagne in 789, at the Synod of Aix-la-Chapelle, established his school laws, the boys in the cloister schools were obliged to learn “the psalms, the chant, the Script, the reckoning of church festivities, and grammar from traditionally well-established manuscripts.”5 In Carolingian days music was regarded as the most important “discipline” in the school curriculum, but even earlier, in the seventh century, Isidore of Seville had said, “Nothing exists without her; for the world herself is composed of the harmony of sounds, and the Heaven moves itself according to the course of harmony,”6 an observation obviously based on the Pythagorean conception that music is a part of the cosmic harmonia or proportion. Alcuin, Charlemagne’s secretary and educational adviser, placed music among “the seven columns which carry the divine wisdom,” and warned that “no one could reach comprehensive knowledge who does not elevate himself by means of these seven pillars or steps.”7 In the Middle Ages, of course, music was one of the arts, that is, a science, and its function was predominantly intellectual, speculative, and theoretical. In the Gymnasia of Bach’s time musical practice flourished, and these schools became the laboratories that furnished the churches and court chapels with contrapuntal and figural music of the best and most modern composers of the age.
On the eve of the Reformation the church choirs consisted mainly of professional singers, remote from the populace. When Luther restored the original intimacy between the congregation and its ritual, he also reorganized the school choirs, a reform that along with the new Christian hymn and congregational singing became part of the communal liturgy, and formed the basic elements of the lofty art that found its consummation two centuries later.
Many of Luther’s opinions on education have been recorded and preserved in his Table Talks and other documents. Luther looked upon persons lacking knowledge and skill in music with suspicion: “I do not feel satisfied with those who scorn music”8 The teacher especially must know music: “A schoolmaster must be able to sing; otherwise, I won’t acknowledge him”9
Music Among the Academic Disciplines
The earliest school laws, issued by Luther’s disciples, Melanchthon and Johann Bugenhagen, set the pattern for numerous other regulations that followed with dogmatic fidelity in various towns and principalities all over Germany. In Braunschweig, Johann Bugenhagen laid down the basic law in a church ordinance of 1528:
the cantors . . . after the command and the will of your Rector must do school work like the other fellows. Moreover it is your particular duty that you teach singing to all children, old and young, learned or less so, to sing together in German and in Latin, moreover also figural music [concerted music] not only as is customary, but also, prospectively, in an artistic manner, so that the children learn to understand the voices, the clefs, and whatever else belongs to such music, so that they learn to sing dependably, purely in tune, etc. etc.10
Small details became universal laws, slavishly copied and obeyed in all the Christian (Protestant) lands. For instance, the hour assigned for singing practice came to be the first of the afternoon, presumably on the advice of German physicians, who believed that singing aided digestion.11 Whether digestion was a help to singing seems not to have been considered. The boys had been under steady discipline since five o’clock in the morning, but school regulations relentlessly repeated the same law that Melanchthon and the Electorate of Saxony issued in 1538.12 During the course of the seventeenth, and especially in the eighteenth century, this harsh rule began to be relaxed in many schools. But in Ohrdruf Bach still received his music lessons at the conventional hour,13 five times a week, a considerable portion out of a total of 30 class hours. There is ample reason to believe, on the basis of Professor Junghans’ research, that students met every day for music at Lüneberg also.14 Although a school for noblemen, this former cloister school cultivated music more arduously than most German institutions of that time.
The singing lessons were designed entirely as a preparation for the elaborate church service, which used the most modern and difficult repertoire. The elaborate coloratura passages of the cantatas and motets designated for performance each week demanded a skill in sight-singing that is rarely found today, except among a few highly trained professionals. It certainly would be impossible today to gather a group of choir boys ranging in age from 11 to 23 who could meet the exacting requirements of the music and a master like Johann Sebastian Bach. Only an unshaken faith in the spiritual purpose of the art and a long tradition of adherence to rigid disciplines could produce such concerted musical dedication on the part of composers, teachers, and students.
Generally the choristers were divided in two groups according to the quality of their musical talent and the beauty of their voices. Those who had passed an examination in choral and figural singing were singled out for the performance of more difficult and important music. At Lüneburg Bach was admitted to the Matins choir, an elite group of 13 to 18 voices from the chorus symphoniacus, the entire student body of singers with 23 to 27 members.15
Cantors of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century choirs spent considerable time and effort seeking and selecting fine voices and musically gifted boys. Since almost all musical training took place in these Gymnasia, school choirs all counted among their graduates such famous musicians as Pachelbel, the numerous relatives and namesakes of Bach, Froberger, Reincken, Bohm, Mattheson, Buxtehude, Sweelinck, Handel, Schütz, and Telemann. The choirs were always small, the best ones numbering as few as two or three sopranos, the same or a smaller number of altos and tenors, and perhaps one or two more—if they were available—for the basses. If basses were lacking, a bass fiddle often was substituted.16 A decree of 1581 reflects the selectiveness of the groups: “Whosoever is unmusical by nature, and who by his voice and singing proves that he cannot perceive harmonies is excluded from music.”17 These talented groups undoubtedly gave good performances in their weekly services, although they had to read their four-hour programs practically at first sight.
The students were always eager to earn an extra penny and the school authorities themselves aided their efforts by offering their students’ services for weddings, funerals, and symposia (luncheons of various social and fraternal organizations). Often the cantor accompanied the students on these trips, and took no small share of the money received. In 1700, Bach’s first year at Lüneburg, Junghans tells us that the cantor there got one-sixth of the proceeds,18 leaving young Bach and each of his 22 fellow singers a little less than 14 marks for a season’s effort. The boys became beggar-students on certain holidays, saints’ days, and birthdays, and groups serenaded at the doors of prominent burghers. Between Martin’s and Candlemas the singing companies even went from door to door, sometimes accompanied by instrumentalists. When they assisted in the performance of plays in public theaters, even the rector took a share of the proceeds.19
Music Theory in the Gymnasia
The reliable and practical musicianship that these young scholars displayed, whether performing church motets, madrigals, or “Studentenschmauss” (as Hermann Schein calls his collection of five-voiced student songs), could not have been acquired without a certain amount of theoretical preparation. Music theory, as taught in the Gymnasia, was focused primarily on achievement of the highly developed technique of sight-singing called solfeggio. The students were taught to sing intervals, to recognize all keys and sing all time values correctly and with absolute assurance. Textbooks by Otto Gibelius (1612-1682), Georg Falck (ca. 1630-1689), Nicolaus Lange (1659-1720), and the famous Wolfgang Caspar Printz (1641-1717) used during the period, all warn against yielding to the temptation of memorizing what should be read at sight; for repeated infractions the student might be dropped from the chorus.20
Quite systematically during the first half hour they were instructed in the praecepta or rules for intervals, clefs, rests, and the like, which they had to memorize. Their textbooks recited the rules and presented exercises, generally prefaced with edifying reflections on the lofty purpose of music or speculations on its origin. But strong emphasis on practical execution led cantors to strive more and more to simplify theoretical instruction, which had long been bound to medieval intellectualism and pedantry. Before Luther’s time musical instruction at the universities was treated as a scientia or a doctrina, closely allied to mathematics, as part of the quadrivium. The Lutheran schools followed this approach to some extent, but did not sacrifice teaching musical performance. Gradually the venerable classics of the Middle Ages, Pythagoras and Boethius, were relegated to the classrooms of university lecturers, where true music sunk into oblivion. At least a part of this approach was carried over into the Lutheran Gymnasia, which still left instruction in composition entirely to private lessons.
A major contribution toward simplification of music theory was made in 1594 by Sethus Calvisius (1556-1625), the first Protestant cantor at the Thomas School (in Leipzig). Compendium musicae practicae pro incipiendibus, or Practical Handbook of Music for Beginners, is the first of a succession of textbooks aimed at improving practical execution. In his Musicae artis, Praecepta nova et facielima per septem voces musicales (1602), he replaced the old system that had been used since the eleventh century. Instead of the Guidonian hexichord system, which involved shifts from one six-tone system to another, he introduced a modern scale of seven tones, invented by Hubert Waelrant (1517-1595). Like our present-day system, he used syllables, in this case “bo, ce, di, ga, lo, ma, ni.”21 Instead of characterizing music as a science, he designates it as ars, a skill, a distinction which radically freed music from medieval rationalism. Calvisius’ task was taken up by many other cantors; during the seventeenth century a new textbook appeared somewhere in Germany almost every other year. Admittedly most of these efforts were redundant and unoriginal, but simplification of musical theory definitely progressed through this process.
Considering its practical orientation, the Lutheran world was remarkably slow to adopt even Calvisius’ simpler methods. The conservative school of Lüneburg still used a textbook of Henricus Faber (d. 1552), Compendiolum Musicae pro Incipiendibus (Handbook of Music for Beginners) in Bach’s time. The students at Lüneburg used an edition of the 1548 text by Melchior Vulpius (ca. 1570-1615), with accompanying columns in the vernacular by M. Christoph Rid, printed in Jena in the year 1620. This book was considered important enough to be reissued several times—in 1624, 1636, and 1665—and furnished with a new translation by Adam Gumpelzhaimer (1559-1625). A typical late Renaissance work, the text deals with the ancient notation of pauses, besides the modes, the hexachords and their mutations; it even contains a picture of the Guidonian hand, a mnemonic device of counting the 19 notes on the joints and tips of the fingers, attributed to Guido of Arrezzo (995-1050). So Faber’s music theory, along with Hutter’s theology and Buno’s history, kept Bach firmly bound within a conservative frame of reference.
The conservatism in music, however, does have some practical explanation, since the choirs often had to read music in the old notation. The library of St. Michael’s, undoubtedly one of the most complete in the country,22 possessed many sixteenth-century compositions for which modern editions were not available.23 The choir had to sing directly from the outdated notation. The repertoire derived from the Thesaurus Musicus of Johann Montanus (d. 1563) and Ulrich Neuber (d. 1571)24 and probably also from Georg Rhau (1488-1548),25 and from sixteenth-century composers such as Orlando di Lasso (ca. 1532-1594) and Alexander Utendal (psalms of 1570). Modern notation and modern theory were certainly taught also, for the library kept an abundance of modern works. The music in this library was not kept primarily for reference, but for use in the service, and the students became thoroughly acquainted with those works. Bach must have known them well since, after his voice broke, he was probably employed as praefect, as assistant conductor, or at least as accompanist.26
Canonic singing, which was often practiced in several parts, presented another practical challenge to school boys. The student’s score had only his own part printed on it, and this had to be shared by several boys. The young craftsmen had to be very sure of their pitch and intervals, as well as time values, to make their entrance without error. Faber’s textbook contains instructions for singing in canons, which he calls by the Renaissance term, fugae. Canon then stood for either the sign of entrance or a rule governing the fuga. In the words of Johannes Tinctoris (ca. 1435-1511) canon is “A prescription which pronounces the will of the composer with a certain obscurity.”27 Hermann Finck (1527-^558) calls it “a prescription through which the unwritten part of a composition is called forth from the written.”28 In the several examples Faber includes in the text little signs that indicate the places for succeeding entrances.
If the sign of entrance is lacking, and the place of entrance is to be found by the singers themselves, a puzzle canon or riddle canon is used, a form which only seasoned contrapuntalists should attempt. When identical parts followed each other, beginning at different points but on the same pitch, the boys read the following instruction in their textbooks: Fuga in unisono, id est, in eodem tono vel tono. When the second singer was to repeat the melody a fourth higher, he would read: Fuga in epidiatessaron vel hyperdiatessaron. If he was to follow in the fourth below, he read subdiatessaron ; if his answer was to be sung a fifth higher, he knew this by the term epidiapente, a fifth below by the term subdiapente. When Bach wrote his Musical Offering for Frederick the Great in 1747, he used some of these terms in medieval Greco-Latin for canons.
Vocal Quality in School Choirs
The hours spent studying tedious, obscure textbooks and memorizing endless details seems to have been effective, for this knowledge of music theory combined with rigorous practice produced choirs of young boys capable and skilled in performing the most difficult pieces. A glance at the repertoire of St. Michael’s reveals a great number of Italian composers of the middle seventeenth century, including Tarquinio Merula (d. 1680); Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643); Sabbatini, who flourished about 1665; Giovanni Andrea Bontempi [Angelini] (ca. 1624-1705); Antonio Bertali, the opera composer who lived in Vienna (1605-1669); Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674); and many of their contemporaries. The style and texture of their music required lightness and ability to sing rapid passages, trills, and similar ornaments. Teachers of voice culture were probably not among the faculties of that period; but the cantors, who supervised and generally taught the choristers and had to cope with Italian style, were advised in various school decrees “gradually to accustom the students to agility.”29 Students and teachers could refer to Italian singing manuals now included in the school libraries for additional help. The library of the Thomas School, for instance, had a manual by Carissimi dated 1696.30 Although musical taste in Lüneburg remained influenced by a severer style, dominated by the Dutchman Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), whose students were found all over north Germany, Italian singing methods for coloratura and ornamentation were gradually adopted all over Germany.
Bach’s cantatas strikingly exemplify the full effect of the Italian style upon German singing and upon the texture of German church music; he demands part singing, bel canto legato singing, utmost control of the breath, rapid passages, and trills of his performers. But even in Lüneburg during Bach’s school years, the repertoire was demanding more and more of these techniques. Bel canto (maintenance of an even quality of tone throughout all registers and a singing legato) became an esthetic need. The fullness and intensity of the modern tenor voice was not expected then, but lightness and agility of the voice were constantly being tested by the demands of the all-important baroque trill. Detailed singing manuals by Pier Francesco Tosi (ca. 1653/54-1732) and others leave no doubt that a singer’s performance of the lighter, slower trill used during that epoch was a measure of the respect he should be accorded.
The artless candor and dispassionate coolness of the school choir boys suited the motets and Masses that rang from the choir loft. Female voice were not heard in churches until the end of the eighteenth century, and in Leipzig, not until 1800. In the Protestant church castrati were abhorred; men, therefore, often took recourse to falsetto singing-masters of which were called falsetti or fistulanten.31 The “mixed quartets” of the day combined normal voices with falsetti. Often singers were able to sing both normally and with falsetto. Gesner, the preacher and close friend of Bach, relates Bach’s ability to give the pitch to “this one in high, the next in low, and the third in middle register.”32 (Magister Vogel boasts of a similar talent in a written application for a position at Bach’s Thomas Church in Leipzig.) Schering remarks that had the B Minor Mass been performed at the Catholic court chapel of Dresden, it would have been sung by castrati. In Leipzig, however, falsetti would have been used.
The schools usually owned instruments of various kinds; Junghans tells us that the neighboring Johannisschule (St. John’s School) in Lüneburg in 1651 acquired a regal (portable organ), in 1653 a violin with six strings (probably a bass fiddle), and in 1659 a positiv (a small stationary organ) which was either a spinet, a virginal, or a harpsichord. The school also bought a lute, a pandura (similar to a guitar), a viola da gamba, a treble violin, a bass violin with five strings, a trombone, a Zinck (a high-sounding brass instrument), and three cymbala (tympani). But since the school followed the general custom of employing the ancient guilds, the Town Pipers and Art Fiddlers (Stadtpfeiffer und Kunstgeiger), to assist in church performances, the school probably did not offer lessons on these instruments to its students.
Michaeliskirch (St. Michael’s), Bach’s school, must have depended on some of the students to accompany the Matins choir in concerted pieces. In Bach’s time the school owned strings, flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, tympani, trombones, horns, and a tuba.33 The instruments, of course, differed considerably from their present descendants.
Along with formal study and performance, Bach certainly took advantage of the rich treasures of the church libraries in Lüneburg; he obviously used many of the pieces studied there as models for his own creation. As praefect or accompanist, Bach had to study the works thoroughly and to intabulate them, that is, either spontaneously or in writing put the parts together in score form. He never ceased to study and adapt other men’s masterpieces, as his creative work throughout his lifetime amply reveals. The emphasis on modern music performed at St. Michael’s led Bach to model his earlier works after living composers like his organ teacher Georg Bohm (1661-1733), Bohm’s teacher Johann Adam Reincken (1623-1722), the famous Dietrich Buxtehude of Lübeck (1637-1707), his elder brother Johann Christoph Bach of Eisenach, Christoph’s teacher Johann Pachelbel, and Jakob Froberger.